What constitutes good leadership?
In the world of the NRL, it’s historically been a metric commonly associated with the team captain. “Strong” captains were celebrated as being important components of successful teams. Leaders like Arthur Beetson, Steve Mortimer and Wally Lewis have become rugby league folklore as much for their leadership as their talent.
However, over the last ten years, titles such as “team captains” or “leadership group” have become the term du jour.
Why the shift?
Traditionally, footballing skill was a key attribute when it came to selecting the captain. One of the best players would be given the honour of reinforcing the coach’s message on the field and the reasoning would be simple – they’d often have the admiration of their team mates and, given their form, they’d be less likely to be dropped.
Today, there is an increasing value placed on empowering the players. By taking on more responsibility, the expectation is that the footballers will maximise their performance and drive team culture.
Michael Maguire and Nathan Cleary are two coaches who have gone down the path of naming multiple (read 5 or 6) team captains.
In 2019, Cleary explained his decision:
“We are confident it will see every Panthers player contribute in their own way and help create real ownership of this team in 2019.”
The key word there is obviously ownership.
Whether they’re called team captains or a leadership group, every team has them.
And this is where one of the most important evolutions of the Parramatta team appears to be taking shape.
Since 2013, the pater familias of the Parramatta team has been Tim Mannah. And what he brought to the squad was important.
The league world knew him as a fine ambassador for his club and the code. A tireless community and charity worker, he brought the same ethic to his training and preparation. He made it his responsibility to welcome and get to know new members of the full time squad, and he was one of the first to run alongside those who were struggling with the demands of pre-season training. As a role model, there were few better qualified.
But far too often, Tim seemed to be the lone voice. A leadership group might have been in place, but to my eyes few seemed ready to fulfil the role expected. David Gower would fit the bill, but he could never be guaranteed of consistent top grade selection.
You need leaders in your spine, as they handle the ball more than others. You need them in your forwards as they carry the heaviest workload.
You need people capable of selfless ambition – they set a priority of team success ahead of personal success. Impressively, when this is done well, a great captain’s personal form thrives in such a team environment.
Over the last two years, Parramatta’s leadership has been in a state of transition. Arthur has been looking for a core group of players to take on the role. Gutherson was appointed co-captain and more was expected of the senior players. In 2018, this did not play out well.
I have a theory about this, and how it changed in 2019.
Good leaders require emotional intelligence (EQ). Over the last quarter century there have been numerous studies about the role or relative importance of emotional intelligence in leadership. It’s most often been applied to business/organisation contexts, but it also has relevance to professional sports teams.
Put simply, a person with high EQ has an understanding of themselves – including their own strengths and weaknesses, they have good self-regulation of their emotions, they possess empathy and social skills and are motivated and capable of understanding what motivates others.
I’ll also throw in another criteria – consistency. An effective leader, with a high EQ, will also be consistent in their own standards. And consistency creates credibility – an essential quality when leading others in challenging times.
Let’s consider the Eels of 2018. Apart from Mannah, there were no leaders to be found in the forwards. Team selections were impacted by injury and poor form, meaning there was nobody stepping up at a time when leadership was needed the most.
In the spine, what was present was literally the antithesis of emotional intelligence. Mitch Moses has openly discussed his flaws during that tumultuous year, looking to blame others instead of understanding his individual accountability. The weekly frustrations were written on the faces of Gutherson and Norman.
An environment which had “leaders” looking frustrated and confused was never going to produce success.
Ultimately, the horrors of the season would turn out to be the catalyst for change.
It would come from up-skilling the current squad and adding leadership via recruitment.
The blunt reviews with BA would be a starting point. They were soon followed by the well-documented honesty sessions for the entire group. Kurt Wrigley, a facilitator with Leading Teams, was added as a leadership resource.
I haven’t been privy to the focus areas of any leadership sessions, but there certainly seems to be development in the emotional intelligence of key players.
The impact on Mitch Moses has been astonishing.
Though he’s only beginning to scratch the surface of what being a leader means, Moses’ growth in game management was exponential. His stellar season saw him top the premiership for try assists, claim Aussie 9s and Prime Ministers XIII representation, as well as being named Dally M half of the year and the Ken Thornett medallist.
Clint Gutherson has also grown as a captain. He has always set the standard in team preparations whilst walking that fine line between team joker and leader. Under his leadership, captain’s runs are now just that – Arthur looks on as Gutherson leads the squad through its final run of the week. He looks to inspire others through both actions and words.
On that note, Nathan Brown has become a stronger voice. It’s not unusual to see the Eels enforcer offer advice to the younger forwards or address the playing group at training.
And the new recruits had an immediate impact.
From his first session, Ferguson was a powerful voice. He took young backs under his wing, offering advice about positioning and reading the play.
Junior Paulo became an important senior player for the young Pasifika boys in the squad, but he didn’t limit his influence to them. Throughout the pre-season, he made Ethan Parry’s development a personal mission, ensuring that every hit up made by the young back was full of purpose.
And, as the season has unfolded, Shaun Lane was praised for his leadership qualities. His role in the development of Dylan Brown and the Eels left side attack received the recognition it deserved.
While we’re talking left side, Michael Jennings became an important mentor for Maika Sivo. The rookie Fijian speaks glowingly Jenko’s communication during matches and the confidence it gives him. It’s probably something which has not received enough acknowledgement this year.
Are there any future leaders in the young players?
There are, and importantly they are all found in the spine.
Few would argue that Reed Mahoney possesses the qualities to be a successful leader. He’s intelligent, articulate, dedicated, community minded and composed under pressure.
Interestingly, the player following behind Reed in the dummy half role, Kyle Schneider, is also a leader. Though he’s yet to experience senior footy, the talented young rake has been captain in both Eels and representative age teams.
The other player I’d nominate as a leader of the future, Dylan Brown, seems unflappable during the heat of battle. His confidence and composure this year belied his youth and inexperience. To my eyes, his EQ looks to be very high. He’s also someone who understands the importance of his team mates, and can often be found helping out or watching the lower grades on his days off.
Moving into 2020, what was once a justified area of concern for Brad Arthur could potentially become a strength for the Eels.
Players such as Gutherson, Moses, Nathan Brown, Paulo and Lane are becoming mature leaders, in what should be the most productive times of their careers. Ferguson and Jennings have the experience and wisdom to mentor their younger charges. Mahoney and Brown could be nurtured as future captains.
Though only twelve months have passed, it seems a far cry from 2018.